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New sponge on the string test to detect cancer could reduce waiting times for endoscopies

An NHS trial of the cytosponge, or sponge on the string test to detect cancer could reduce long waiting lists for endoscopies

A new cytosponge or sponge on the string test trialled by the NHS to detect oesophageal cancer could reduce the need for endoscopies in patients. The trial found that eight out of ten people assessed using the cytosponge method were discharged without the need to join waiting lists for endoscopies. The NHS England said this could ‘free up endoscopy capacity for higher risk patients and those referred for urgent tests for oesophageal cancer’.

‘Thousands of people have now benefitted from this incredibly efficient test on the NHS – while the sponge on a string is small in size, it can make a big difference for patients – they can conveniently fit the test into their day and it can often replace the need for an endoscopy while also helping to reduce waiting lists by freeing up staff and resources,’ said Amanda Pritchard, NHS chief executive.

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The NHS pilot has tested over 8,500 patients using the cytosponge. The test involves patients swallowing a small capsule-shaped device which contains a tiny sponge. This sponge collects cell samples before being extracted via a string attached to the sponge.  The cells are then analysed to see if someone has Barrett’s oesophagus, which raises the risk of developing oesophageal cancer.

Barrett’s oesophagus – a condition affecting food – is usually diagnosed or ruled out via endoscopy (a camera test of the food pipe) following a GP referral to a gastroenterologist or other specialist practitioner who can carry out the procedure. However, the trial found that the sponge on the string test takes far less time than an endoscopy, is far less invasive and quicker to access, and is £300 cheaper a time for the NHS to carry out.

With over 9,000 people diagnosed with oesophageal cancer in the UK every year, the capsule sponge test ‘is one the most exciting early detection tools to emerge in recent years,’ said Dr Lyndsy Ambler, senior strategic evidence manager at the Cancer Research UK, which helped fund the sponge’s development. ‘Evidence shows that is helping the NHS to free up endoscopy capacity and could lead to improvements in reducing late diagnosis of oesophageal cancer,’ she said.